Friday, 31 August 2012

Looking Back, It All Seems So Clear Now (1)

One morning during a short break in Tenerife, I decided to drive up the road on the south side of Mount Tiede. It's one of those narrow, windy, steep roads, the sort with no safety rails, tight corners and steep drops. For a while I was okay, stopping a couple of times to look at the view. I was even enjoying the challenge of all those twists and turns. Then, quite suddenly, I lost my nerve. Two-thirds of the way up. I couldn't go on. I wanted to get out of the car and walk away or have someone else drive. Except of course, I couldn't. I had to go on driving up to the top and go back down again, even though I could feel the fear in my stomach and saw horrible accidents at every corner. My body carried on where my soul and mind had given up, and I have no idea how I made it up the last third of that mountain road. 

That's what it was like when I spent most of 2006 looking for a job, being told that I gave good interview and was going about my search in the right way, not to be worried, something will come along... After a while, my hope ran out, leaving an outward physical reflex of confidence, and habits picked up from years of job-hunting. My body carried on when my soul had long since given up. 

When in February 2007, I joined The Bank, I was in a bigger psychological mess than I knew. I was scared, vulnerable, weak and utterly bereft of self-confidence. I was surviving on habit. Of course, the bully who ran the section I joined saw it and laid right in. He did it to everyone in the team, and they were more robust younger men. We took it for eighteen more months until he moved on. His replacement was another weakling who basically marched to the first guy's orders.

I didn't know it at the time, but my blood sugar was running high, and it was affecting the way I felt and thought, making both confused and messy. My girlfriend had stopped sleeping over because I was snoring, and I went for an operation to treat that. Amongst other things, they scar your upper palate so it toughens: it's not life-threatening, but it is painful for a couple of weeks. It didn't make enough of a difference for the girlfriend.

In the summer of 2007, my calves decided to get very itchy blotches, which needed some strong prescription ointments to treat. That was followed by a string of nasal infections - maybe eight or ten over two years. My GP kept sending me for blood tests and eventually threatened me with a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, as my level after one test was over 9.1. I had no intention of taking drugs ending in "formin" or "statin", as I had seen what they had done to a friend, so in February 2009 I went on a carb-exclusion diet the GP suggested. Within three months I had lost ten kilos and my blood sugar was down around 4.0. I began to feel like a reasonable person again. 

In autumn of 2008 I broke up the only long-term relationship I've ever had: ten years or so. We had reached that point where we were functioning better apart than we were when we were together. We were snapping at each other and not having any fun. The last holiday we had taken, to Sicily, was a mitigated disappointment: September is always glorious in Sicily except when it isn't, and that was when we went. We had simply been through too many bad times together. we weren't fun anymore, and we were dragging each other down.

At the start of 2009 The Bank merged with the Very Broke Bank That Used To Be A Building Society Before The Other Scottish Bank Bought It. The Bank spent more than six months re-organising itself, starting from the top down, and it was no fun spending six months thinking that I was going to get the chop: I took no holidays, to build up the size of the redundancy payment. I didn't get the chop but I did get put into a lower-graded job, with three years to get myself rehabilitated before they cut my salary and conditions back to match the grade. For about eighteen months there was a general state of unhappiness, upset, disillusion, change, settling-in and experimentation as the new management found its way around. Nobody can remember doing anything much significant in that time - except that's when I did something in three months that apparently would have taken the lesser mortals of Accenture £1m and 3,000 man-hours to do. And I kept up with my e-mails while doing it. I was going to Chester every week, and one of those weeks spent a day in hospital with a grossly infected eye and face.

By the autumn of 2010, my weight was back up to 95 kilos and I was feeling the strain of trying to control my eating. Remember, I don't drink and I don't smoke, and the only thing between me and raw emotion is chocolate, milk shakes and custard doughnuts. So I enrolled at The Gym, and over the next few months lost a lot of unsightliness around the waistline. 2011 was the year I got the infection on my skull I thought might be cancer. It was the year I turned into a guru at work, took three holidays and got a half-decent bonus. In the gym, I made it to passing the US Army standards for guys of fifty. By December 2011 I had made it from unemployed to well-regarded at work, better paid than ninety percent of British taxpayers, and with as secure a job as any wage slave is ever going to have. I should have been on top of the world, but instead I could barely breathe: just before Christmas 2011, one evening I started on my two-mile treadmill run, and collapsed breathless after 500 metres.

I don't care how young or how tough you think you are, that much over so few years would lay you to waste. I'm fifty-eight years old. The miracle is that I went back to work at the start of the New Year. I dragged my body through the longest, coldest and dullest winter and spring anyone can remember, and it kicked, screamed, coughed and pretended to recover.

At this point, I'm supposed to have a teaser suggesting some reason that caused my problems, and how I found a cure for it. This isn't that movie. And neither is any life you or I lead.

What I did was get angry enough to take Step One.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

St James' Park, Sunday Bank Holiday

I was out of the house by 08:05 and on the District Line to town by about 08:30. It was just after 09:00 on Sunday morning that I walked past the Ministry of Justice (do the other Ministries call it "MiniJust", I wonder?) and into St James' Park. I love central London early in the morning, before all the crowds get there: there's this whole huge city I have to myself. Anyway, this is what St James' Looks like, or at least the Western part, as the eastern part was closed off for the Olympics.

Buckingham Palace at the west end, the London Eye and Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the east end (that's why it's the "mysterious east", because no-one knows what they do there). Is the topiary crown inspired by Jeff Koons' Puppy?

The rest of the day was breakfast, gym, a movie at the Curzon Mayfair, a very late lunch and a public transport amble back home. Felt like I was on holiday all the way through - even in the Abs class.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Vauxhall Station, London, In The Dusk

Those who play in central London - well, all right, stay up there late after work - but live in the far reaches of Zone 6 become familiar with Vauxhall Station. It's a lot quicker to get to from all over the West End and Chelsington than Waterloo, and gives you an extra three minutes from the departure time at Waterloo. Those of you who travel by train will appreciate that three minutes is, in the words of Tony d"Amato "a lifetime away" from missing a train and standing around for twenty minutes for the next one. It's the Victoria Line that makes it so.

Anyway, it's August, hot, humid and still light in the evening, and I was on Vauxhall station Tuesday evening for reasons I may explain later. It looked like this..

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Brand Control to Major Tom

I have just discovered that somewhere inside the Marketing department of The Bank is a person, or perhaps a whole department, who approves use of The Bank’s brands and logos in third-party applications. If they say NO, it might actually stop an entire project.

Some things a company can’t win. Given a fuss about an unauthorised use of the company’s logos, you can almost hear the snarks asking “Don’t you have control over who and when and why your logos get used? How difficult is that?” Then you have “You mean an entire £1m project was stopped dead for six weeks until it was pointless by a bunch of bureaucrats who weren’t convinced it was a proper use of the logos? What stupid bureaucracy.”  

There’s no middle way. There might seem to be, but there isn’t: any rule you make will always have some circumstance in which its opposite should have been applied, and by Sod’s Law, that will be the circumstance that happens.

I’ve always thought the bureaucrat-guaradians should have the role of explaining their reservations, but the ultimate decision must always rest with the project sponsor. And he/she can’t get out of that responsibility by referrring to the bureaucrats’s worries, but nor will they get into trouble if they go against the bureaucratic judgement and then it goes wrong for exactly those worries. Otherwise you send a “nobody ever got fired for going along with the bureaucrats” signal, and guess what your company turns into?

Friday, 17 August 2012

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

I have been for a long time as convinced as I am of anything that Damien Hirst's art is a fraud. I have no idea about his sincerity, I don't know him. But I do know his work, and I've just come out from the first major exhibition of it ever in a world-class museum, the Tate Modern. There were various rumours in the art press about how important his collectors thought a major retrospective would be for the value of their collections, I mean, for the artist's reputation, so we should be able to take this as the best of his work.

What did we get? Medicine cabinets, animal and fish vitrines, pills in glittering showcases, spot paintings, three big spin paintings, some medical equipment cabinets, cigarette butts, and the butterfly room. I'll come back to the Real Live Butterfly room later. All these works were produced by assistants in workshops all over the world - though he closed a lot of them in 2008/9. I'm guessing White Cube still has all the unsold Hirst paintings a gallery could ever not want. Heaven alone knows what the notional value of it all was: £100m at the height of the boom, maybe £20m-£30m now? Of course, that's one reason the collectors needed the Tate's endorsement.

You need to know where I'm coming from. I can spot a Pollock that works from one that doesn't, and the same for Barnett Newman. I have a blind spot for Cy Twombley, but on Tuesdays I feel it's my fault, and I'm quite happy for Manzoni to can his shit and exhibit the cans. I thought Spiral Jetty was amazing when I first learned about it sometime in my late teens. I could happily have a Crevelli and a Boldini and a Rothko on my walls - if I had walls strong enough and large enough and if someone were to be so generous. I know that a work or an artist can be the real thing and yet I don't like it, which is how I feel about Basquiat's work. The real thing in art is as subtle, mysterious and utterly present as it is in acting, or politics or cooking. You know when a meal has been slapped together and when, however simple, it has been made with love. Knowing this is not genetic, it's not "evolutionary", it is "cultural knowledge" (but that's the point) that takes reading, looking, learning and practice, and one thing I'm saying is that if you put in the work, you will agree with me, or at least understand why I have this opinion.

I walked through Hirst's exhibition and wondered how on earth anyone could buy it - not just the work, but the whole act. My art detector remained resolutely silent. There's no point explaining why I think Hirst's art is fraudulent. If I say "it lacks X" the rules of modern art-babble allow the reply "Well, that's the point, it's interrogating the idea that art should be X". Hirst's art is supposed to be as much conceptual as representative and physical, but these are ideas you wouldn't bother to have, rather than ideas that, having seen them, you wish you had had. Medicines in cabinets might work if there was some subject linking the medicines together - but there isn't. It's just a collage of boxes. One instance of an idea is conceptual art, a hundred are just a production-line commodity.

The only thing that ever gave me pause about Hirst was the fact that Saatchi backed him. Now I think that Saatchi saw in the young Hirst a good self-publicist, networker and organiser, someone who could (have others) turn out easily-identifiable pseudo-art works for the ordinary millionaire with no actual understanding of or feeling for art. Saatchi backed Hirst as a business proposition, not as an artist. Hirst's is art for people who don't get art, in the same way that Jane Campion's films are movies for people who don't go to the movies. Buy a Hirst, put it in your boardroom, foyer or lounge, spout the art-babble the gallery gave you, and all your friends and visitors will have to assume you are therefore smarter and hipper than them, because you get it, and they don't.

Artists have sub-contracted parts of their work to technicians before and will do so forever: you don't really think that Hals, Rembrant and all those guys painted those ruff collars? There were craftsmen who specialised in it, as there were specialists in painting rugs, curtains and voluminous clothing - they were called "tapestrymen". There's nothing wrong with sending the routine stuff out to a tapestryman - just as there's nothing wrong with a novelist letting their editor give the first draft a good going-over - but an artist can't send out the whole thing. Then they are a designer or an architect. A lot of the work of certain of the big names feels to me as if they really were out of the room when it was done and shipped. These are exactly the artists Banksy is parodying with the Mr Brain Wash thing. Warhol was always on the Art side of the line, Koons can be either side, Hirst is always on the design side. A Warhol has that extra something we need art to have, but a Hirst doesn't have that magic, it's soul-less. Art without soul is usually just bad design.

He even manages to strip the soul and magic out of exotic South American butterflies. The idea of a room full of fancy butterflies doing whatever they do isn't a new one, though keeping the whiteboards on which their pupae were stuck might be. A proper interior designer would have somehow recognised and reflected the exoticism of the butterflies in the colour of the walls, the floorboards and the furniture, while the mechanisms of heating and steaming would have been rendered invisible. It would be a room for rich people to sit in, perhaps to lightly sauna in, and enjoy the sight of the butterflies. So it was difficult to see the point of the peice: was it about the birth-life-death cycle of these wonderful creatures? Was it about their presence? Who knows? When one of the butterflies landed on one of the children in the room, it should have somehow made them part of the artwork. But it didn't, it just made them a kid with a butterfly on their shirt.

Friday, 10 August 2012

London East and West

Random stuff that fell into my iPhone camera over the last couple of weeks.

The Broadgate Tower at the end of Bishopsgate - lots of it unoccupied; the Heron Tower at the other end of Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street; beef salad at The Book Club; fancy hash at The Diner; Cowboy in a parking off Curtain Road, the Street Art tours stop at this one; I don't know what it is, but it's on the corner of Mundy Street and Hoxton Square and my sister likes it; I have been trying to get the sense of how that crane looms for a while now, and think this does it; looking eastbound on South Kensington District Line when London had its summer heatwave week; finally, are there enough notices and signs on that pole halfway up the Archway? And check the top one out: 687 yards? Really? Exactly?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

French Protestant Church, Soho Square

So the Friday of the Opening Ceremony (man am I glad I don't have a TV and so didn't spend three hours watching a tacky tribute to every false myth about Britain there is), I was passing through Soho Square when I noticed that the door to the French Church was open. It's never open.

They were opening for the Olympics and the public could go in and walk around. It's very simple, yet very beautiful and restful in an understated and subtle way. The church was set up for the Huguenots when they sought refuge in England and were granted it by Edward the Sixth. I love the simple, soft and warm brickwork. Standing inside it, I felt calm and safe and yet also lifted by the decor. I prefer it to the more gaudy Catholic church off Leicester Square.


Friday, 3 August 2012

The Spiritual Collapse

The Spiritual Collapse is when someone who you know to be smart, intelligent, well-read and generally understanding of the way the world works, suddenly gets religion, or starts going to healers, and talking about mystic energies, ancient wisdom and quantum mechanics. In the same sentence. One of the smartest and most beautiful women I've known Went Spiritual sometime in her late thirties. So did the scientist Candace Pert, whose book prompted me to think about this. 

I'm not going to reprise Ms Pert's story, as you can read it here, and you should also read her book, Molecules of Emotion, which is as honest and candid a piece of science autobiography as has been published. The point is, she was a smart young woman who turned Spiritual and started talking about "wonderful healers" and weird therapies. 

Now, generally I'd say "if it helps you get through the day, it's okay with me". But there's something about the whole SpiritualTM thing I don't trust. You don't see many poor people doing it. It's very upper-middle class and it ain't cheap. Religion, like AA and the NHS, tends to be free at the point of need. There's an air of smugness about it: Spirituals get it and the rest of us don't. I've never seen a Spiritual go in for competitive sports or serious gym work. They do Yoga, of course, and those who do it every day with some application get very fit and toned. The result usually isn't sensual, and it isn't very sexy either. I get the sense that they are keeping up a front: reserved, standing very straight, with straight, shoulder-length blonde hair tucked behind their ears, speaking evenly. Sexlessly easy-on-the-eye. (The brunettes tend to be funkier and can't quite do the semi-detached presence of the blondes.)

Add in the various "spiritual" exercises, plants, smells, scents, foods, retreats and don'ts (no sugar, no coffee, no fats, no whatever the Government are panicking about and nothing that you'd see an honest builder eating), plus the fact that I've never run across anyone Spiritual who can cut code or has read Karl Popper, and my alarm bells start to go off. I get the sense of denial decorated with elaborate ritual. I'm not sure I really trust anyone who doesn't drink coffee.

If you're okay, you don't need a steady supply of healing this, spiritual that and nice-smelling the other. (I'm okay with nice scents and a clean house, but that has nothing to do with Spirituality: it's called "having a nice place to live". It's when the claims about the spiritual powers of this or that scent start up I head for the exit.) It's not the same as physical exercise.

I exercise because if I don't, the result will be fat, and high blood sugar, and tight trousers, and being short of breath when I tie my shoelaces because my stomach is pushing up against my lungs. Exercise is something the body needs to hold back the rot and decay. I'm happy with the idea that the soul, like the body, gets weary, and needs whatever it takes to perk back up again. There's a wide range of exercise regimes, and people suit some more than others. I've no doubt there's a wide range of soul-perking-up regimes as well, and what suits me won't work for you. The Spirituals always push the same stuff (or rather, this month's same stuff) for everyone. You will never hear a Spiritual suggest that perhaps what you need is an afternoon with the Marx Brothers, a game of soccer with the lads or an afternoon's retail therapy, nor, God forbid, that what you really need is to get laid.

Moving on to stopping the soul-rot, I'm not sure a soul rots from the outside - provided it stays away from hard drugs, bullies and assholes, reality TV, blockbuster fiction and Hollywood comedies. That being not too difficult (except the bullies and assholes part, depending on where you work) souls tend to rot from the inside. Some of that is from toxic stuff other people put there, and that's what therapy is for. Some of it is from toxic stuff that you put there yourself. That's what alcoholics and addicts deal with when they do those famous Twelve Steps. Both approaches require honesty, willingness, open-ness, and the courage to face some unpleasant truths about yourself and other people, and about things you did and others did to you.

Spirituals are all about emptying the mind, letting vexations blow through, not acting on emotions but recognising them so you can let them go, being in the moment and not dwelling on the past. You will notice this is almost the identical advice business writers give you about being made redundant: don't take it personally, let the feelings go, move on, see the opportunity... anything but start to organise some form of political protest. The Indian and Far Eastern traditions out of which SpiritualTM comes have a teaching of the powerlessness of the individual in the face of politics, warlords and weather. Which is very convenient for the politicians, warlords, and given the cultures, the families as well. No revolt, just acceptance. It doesn't really travel very well, and in Europe, it becomes rather self-centered, smug and solipsist: we don't need to organise, because we have enough money and connections to be SpiritualTM and ignore our mis-treatment by clueless governments and lying businesses. 

So what drives an otherwise sensible Western European to smug solipsism, month-long retreats to India and frequent consultations with healers and fringe therapists? In a word: denial. A clear conscience stays clear: it doesn't need endless polishing. Something went seriously wrong with these people's lives or self-images and they can't or won't face it and deal with it. Alkies and addicts have no choice but to deal as the cost of not doing so is premature death, and not a good one either. SpiritualTM folk don't have the same pressure to get real.

In Ms Pert's case, it's the Lasker / Nobel episode. Refusing to sign off on a nomination for a Nobel prize is not girlish pique, as she presents it, but incredibly selfish and spiteful. No matter how justified she feels in her pique. Any AA sponsor would tell her to apologise to all three of the men she prevented from getting a Nobel. Instead she wrote a letter to one of the "forgiving" him for cutting her out of the awards. Way to get it wrong there.

Isn't spirituality often a reaction to horror, pain, desperation, despair and other such? Well, I talk about Higher Powers and say the Serenity Prayer, and I've been emotional places that would scared most people. But I'm not SpiritualTM. I believe that I'm not given anything I can't handle in sobriety, and that God didn't save me from drowning to kick me to death on the beach. If you want to call those spiritual beliefs, we can agree to differ. I do know this: of the people I see in the rooms, the more troubled they are, the more they talk about spirituality. Healthy alkies with lives aim to be sober, not saints. Spirituals have been nowhere near Hell, but they do live in Denial, twinned with towns the same name all over the world, and the weight of that denial is what caused their collapse.